China fines for environmental violations up 48 percent from Jan-Oct: ministry

A man wearing a face mask rides a bicycle on a bridge in front of the financial district of Pudong covered in smog during a polluted day in Shanghai, China November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Aly Song

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China firms accused of violating environmental regulations paid fines totaling 1.02 billion yuan ($154 million) in the first 10 months of 2017, up 48 percent from a year earlier, the environment ministry said on Wednesday.

As part of a campaign to "normalize compliance" when it comes to protecting the environment, China has promised zero tolerance for firms guilty of offences such as illegally dumping waste, exceeding mandatory emissions caps or tampering with monitoring equipment.

The country's new environmental protection law, in force since the beginning of 2015, allows authorities to fine lawbreaking individuals or enterprises on a daily basis until they rectify their problems, and gives regulators the authority to launch criminal charges.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) said in a notice on Wednesday that 32,227 cases had been handled in the first 10 months of the year, more than double last year. The number of "administrative detentions", where an official or executive is detained for continuing to violate regulations, jumped 161 percent to 7,093 cases.

Typical cases included a paper company in southwest China's Guangxi and a construction materials manufacturer in eastern Zhejiang, both of which were accused of tampering with monitoring equipment and forging data.

China is in the middle of a six-month winter campaign to meet air quality targets in northern China, with vast swathes of industrial capacity in 28 cities under orders to shut down during smog build-ups.

With enforcement long seen as a weak link, the government has been at pains to show it is beefing up its supervision and punishment capabilities, and it has established task forces and real-time monitoring systems to help crack down on polluters.

Local officials also face tougher penalties, including demotion or even dismissal, if they are found responsible for a failure to meet pollution targets this winter. They will also be "audited" for the way they manage natural resources, according to a series of new guidelines issued in recent months.

The environment ministry said in November that 1,140 government officials were "held to account" for violating rules and regulations after the first round of province-level environmental inspections conducted last year.

Most received only an official reprimand, while 10 were dismissed and 12 faced criminal punishments.

(Reporting by David Stanway; editing by Richard Pullin)